The Homestead Bank Yields Dividends

As it seems most months are around here, May was interesting.  A family health emergency came up and the Skipper was needed; he ended up being away for three weeks and away from work for almost a month.  Then, as May wound down and June ramped up, work at his employer went through a quiet phase (as sometimes happens as projects complete and new ones haven’t begun yet).  He’s ended up home more often than at work over the last six weeks.  Although he’s using up some vacation time, and we’re tweaking to accommodate the smaller paychecks, and though we know it’s a temporary lull, there have been moments where I’ve looked at the bills and wondered how all this was going to work.

I have a distinct memory of attending an introduction to Permaculture workshop some years back, when we were new to this community and the idea of the homestead project.  During a Q and A session, a participant put up his hand and asked the Permaculture teacher, “is there a point at which this all pays off?  I mean lately it feels like all the money is going out—irrigation, seeds, building supplies, soil amendments–is there a point at which we start to see some financial savings?!”

I’m sure the answer was some version of “Yes”, but I actually only remember the question and how it spoke to likely what so many people were anxious about.  Over the years, I’ve participated in lots of discussions about whether growing food or raising chickens saves you money; mostly the answers look something like “Yes, but not if you compare it to the cheapest food you can buy;” “Yes, if you don’t factor in the cost of the original infrastructure, only the ongoing costs of maintenance;” “Yes, if you consider this a hobby/entertainment and don’t think of your time invested as something that should also have a $ value;” “Yes, if you factor in the health care savings of a healthier diet/lifestyle.” You know.  It does save you money, sort of, in the abstract.

I don’t track and quantify our homestead outputs.  For me, this homestead work is part resilience project for possible decline scenarios, and partly just how we want to live, how we want to spend our time.  We have the luxury of two “off-farm” incomes and don’t worry too much about “breaking even” with our products; for me the community-building social capital of sharing our surplus has become as important a part of the fun and resilience-building as any financial gain would be.

That said, there is no question that we save money thanks to our homestead production.  I don’t know about where you live, but around here food prices have noticeably increased over even the last year, and that’s only expected to continue.  The homestead keeps me out of the grocery store enough that I suffer sticker shock periodically when I do need something.  This past winter/early spring I remember balking at an $8 organic cauliflower and it’s $5 conventionally grown counterpart and wondering how on earth other people are coping!

So, over the last year or two, as I have backed away from the goal of self-sufficiency, I have nonetheless been regularly grateful for the way our homestead acts as a financial buffer.  Our stored foods and ongoing production have meant that the things that we still need to buy–and there are many–are still *supplementary* to our comfortable lives; they are not essentials.  Sharon Astyk talked about this in one of her books (Depletion and Abundance I think?): that it’s important to do whatever you can to make your home a productive one, in whatever circumstances you find yourself in, because every bit you can do for yourself *extends* the ability of your income to stretch further than it otherwise would.  Word.

Anyway, payday came and went last week, with Skipper’s cheque much reduced again.  I looked at the bills, paid what I could, shifted and strategized some other bits, and realized that, for the next two weeks, we needed to get by on…$125.  Ouch!  Now don’t worry, we do have a variety of safety nets, but I don’t like to draw on them if I don’t have to.  And because we don’t like to, I wasn’t thinking about them in that moment, I was just thinking about our bottom line.  Which looked depressing.

I stepped away from the computer and started to putter around the house, talking myself down from the panic of that moment.  I started to tidy and move through the fear, reminding myself where the money had gone, that this was temporary, that we were fine.  I thought about what we might need to buy over this next week or two.

And then it hit me.  We didn’t need to buy anything.  We had enough food stored and coming in from the garden to last us for months.  Neither one of us needed to drive anywhere, and both vehicles were full because Skipper was rotating through some stored gas and had just emptied the stored fuel into the truck.  There are two months worth of chicken feed in the shed, stores of homemade soap in the bathroom, I even just bought 2 large packages of toilet paper that was on sale, lol.

It suddenly sunk in that so much of the disconnect that I have often felt between watching the bank account shrink and yet knowing that we’re not spending money on anything frivolous was because this was where all of our money is going: into the homestead bank.  We ARE saving and investing.  It’s just that the savings don’t tally up on numbers on a spreadsheet.  They’re outside in the garden, in the soil, in the berries and the fruit trees, in the chicken run, in the stocked pantry, in the piles of wood on their way into the woodshed, transformed into the butter, pork and fish in the freezer (and whose purchase had in turn gone into the savings accounts of the friends and colleagues who had provided us with them).

Without really paying attention, we have taken significant steps out of the money economy.  Not by eliminating money, but by using it to invest in a real, tangible savings bank, rather than investing it in financial vehicles that are intended to grow more money.

Isn’t this what resilience actually means?  We’ve spent years building up this savings account.  Now, when the money economy is more fragile for us during this particular time in our particular circumstances, it’s time to draw on that account.  Rather than spending money on continuing to build our infrastructure and pantry over these next few weeks, we can coast on our savings for a little while.

So this is the answer to that question from years ago.  Yes, setting up a homestead takes money (though as with all things, the spectrum of how much is needed is vast).  But at some point, magically and mysteriously, the homestead reaches a point of dynamic stability (I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s true!) and becomes a bank of stored value.  And then it really starts to yield dividends.

Just Contemplating…

I don’t know where the last few months have gone.  I feel like I’ve blinked, and now it’s almost June!

I’m not being flippant, though.  We’ve been working hard.  I put in another intensive 4 months teaching one semester, and I’m halfway through another one.  Around the homestead, we’ve made soap, renovated the pantry, built a second chicken run, started seeds, planted, hauled topsoil and mulch, cleaned, cooked, eaten our way through the winter food stores, and built fire after fire in the woodstove.  We’ve bought a bigger sailboat!

I would love to have been blogging about it all along the way.  I did, in my head.  But I never seemed to have the energy to take the photos, edit the photos, load the photos, and then write.

And true to myself, through it all, I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking.

I told a friend recently that one reason the Skipper and I get on so well is that we stress out over the opposite things.  The small stuff never bothers me.  Day to day, I am calm as anything; feathers rarely ruffled.  Skipper?  He trips over his computer cord and the wrath erupts.  When I met him, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” was on his bedside table. 🙂

I sweat the big stuff.  I am constantly working through The Implications of things, making Plans, wondering about the Repercussions for my Identity and my Future.  I remember the inner turmoil I felt at 15 when my mother suggested I get a job at the local corner drugstore.  Working at the drugstore was not what I was Meant to Do with My Life!  I’ve been a bit of a drama queen in my day.

So I have spent the last 5 months Contemplating.  Life, The Universe, and Everything.  The blog.  The homestead.  I turn 40 next week, and Skipper turns 50 in the fall.  We are talking about what we want to do when we Grow Up.  You know, sometime over the next 10 years.  What’s most important to us?

I started my career late.  I’ve been working at it for a long time (finished my PhD 5 years ago! Been teaching…ummm…wow, almost 12 years, I think!), but only at the end of this year have I really felt the shift into actual career mode, as in, I should be dedicated to contributing to my field, not just putting in my time teaching as the job that pays the bills.  But the people I have watched with professional careers really just work and then have a hobby or two that they enjoy during their downtime or when they get a short vacation.  The career is really the primary focus.  Creating a productive homestead farm?  That’s another full-time job.  That never ends.

Having a sustainable life–emotionally, spiritually, physically, creatively–has always been a primary value of mine.  I’ve been through burnout more than once (have been teetering on the edge of it again this month), and I structure my life to have balance and sanity.  I’m not the “work hard/ play hard” type.  But I don’t see a lot of balance around me at the moment.  I have other colleagues who are full-time professors and trying to farm.  The models seem to be either professional sacrifices to farm, or emotional/health sacrifices to do both.  So I’m contemplating my priorities.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about fear.

Spiritually, I have come to understand that in any given moment, any given decision, there is only Love or Fear.  Either I feel grounded, free, expansive–in alignment with Life’s energy–or I feel afraid: constricted, alone, small, and disconnected.

I have spent months then trying to make peace with my fear of the future in the face of coming crises.  Wrestling my mind, because if I don’t fear death, if I believe that the way forward is to listen to Nature’s voices and to de-industrialize over time; if I believe that transformation of our current civilization is absolutely necessary, then what is there to fear?

And yet fear has largely driven my homesteading goals; fear has been the source of my energy to learn more, build more resiliency, more infrastructure, more security.  If I disconnect from my fear of change, of transformation, where does that leave me?  I don’t know yet.  I’m contemplating.  Do I want to keep blogging?  I don’t know.  I’m thinking.

Anyone who knows me well hears me go around in circles of ways I imagine my future.  Maybe I will travel! Maybe I will farm!  Maybe I will write!  Maybe we will move!  Maybe we will Liveaboard!  Around and around.

But I said to a close friend a couple of years ago, that’s just my mind, just my words and my thoughts.  When you look at my actions, I’m very steady; very predictable.  I took almost 8 years to do my PhD, and dreamed in all kinds of different directions over those years.  But I also just kept plugging away, month after month, doing what needed to be done.

And though I still tell Skipper each day about a new direction we Could take, we still just make plans and buy supplies and start the projects that need to be done.  Finish the painting, put siding on the shop, plant the seeds, grow the food, make plans to take out the dead plants from last year and put in the new ones.  Chop wood, carry water.

So thank you, if you’ve still been checking in, wondering if I’m still here, and wondering if there will ever be another update.  I think so.  I’m hoping this post is breaking back in to writing, that teaching is winding down and that there is a flood of creativity ready to flow again.  I’m tired though, and also need to go slow and take many breaks.  So I’m contemplating.  I’ll keep you posted.



Moving Towards the Light: Goals for 2013

Technically, it’s the winter solstice that marks the longest night.  But around here, it takes a little while longer before the days themselves actually get longer.  Yesterday, Skipper began the ritual that tells us we are moving towards towards the increasing light of the new year:  he adjusted the timer on the automatic chicken coop door up 10 minutes!

I know lots of people scoff at new year’s resolutions, and I think it’s because often making them feels like making an abstract list of things one should do, usually in order to become a “better” person by society’s standards in some way.  It becomes a list of socially acknowledged flaws that one is supposed to overcome in order to more acceptable and therefore, instantly happier.

So, I’m long over that!  I’m sure my list of social flaws is long, but most of the time, it doesn’t cross my mind to care.  It’s AWESOME not being 20 any more! 🙂

Instead, I feel the ancient sense of reflection and rebirth that this time of year brings.  I was telling a friend over the holidays that there’s something special about the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s the only time of year that the Skipper and I get holidays at the same time, unless we plan and schedule them to do something specific.  The week at the end of the year, if you don’t fill it with shopping, is an odd kind of limbo space, neither the old year over nor the new year yet begun; an in-between, threshold time.  It seems to me that to honour this time between cycles by reflecting on the year that’s been and making decisions that will impact the year-yet-to-be is worth doing.

I don’t know about you, but for all the debate about the significance of 2012, the year was intense!  It was a year of huge growth, awakenings, and emotional shifts for me and those around me.  I spent much of the year studying climate change and peak oil research, and then trying to learn how to be in despair and move through life in a functioning way at the same time.  The good news?  I’m getting the hang of it, I think!

Despite the despair, I’m happy with how the homestead evolved in 2012.  We have a really good supply of winter food this year, which was one of my major goals.  We expanded the vegetable beds, and learned a lot more about raising a small flock of chickens, including processing and eating the roosters.  We started officially eating meat as a staple of our diet, including our first side of pork from a local farm.  I canned with determination this year, and we have a stocked pantry to show for it.  I’m feeling like I’ve got a handle on the vegetable production after 3 years, and I’m ready to take on some modest new projects.

So in 2013, my goals are about taking more baby steps toward resiliency.  I mean baby steps, though.  After the year that was, I’m not up for major projects…rainwater harvesting in a big way, for instance, will likely wait for another year.

My gardening goals are to renovate 3-4 small flower beds to include more medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as pollinator-attratcting flowers.  In the last few years we’ve been taking out ornamentals to make room for vegetables, but it’s time to put some of the flowers back into the ecosystem.

I want to get a handle on using green manures and cover crops this year, and get a good supply of winter greens in the greenhouse for those frosty and snowy days when the crops under cover are frozen.  Always hard to do in the heat of the summer, but would be so nice to have right now!! I’ll also be slowly building up the soil in the places where a few more future beds will go, but I’m not going to worry about planting them yet.

My last gardening goal is to start getting serious about seed saving.  Buy a book, start with the easy plants (beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes), where you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination, and actually select for the traits I want.  In other words, start saving seeds from the first tomato that ripens, instead of the last straggler, which is the one we don’t want to eat! 🙂

Beyond the garden, I’d like to build a simple solar oven and learn to use it.  When the summer days are too hot to cook, I want this to be my go-to option.   I’m hoping that the Skipper also finds time this summer to build us a simple solar dehydrator.  We have a few other small infrastructure building projects to work away on, so those 2 additions to our food production system seem reasonable.

Lastly, I’m feeling ready to take on the biggest step towards building more security in uncertain times.  No, it’s not learning to hunt, or buying MRE’s to stash in the basement!  It’s being willing to come OUT of my homestead, and start joining with others to build stronger community and social networks.

I’ve intellectually given this idea lip service for some time, and have certainly found like-minded friends and recognized the vital importance of their support.  But too often, given an intensely social job, I have spent my off-time hiding, and in my moments of panic for the future, have busied myself in worrying only about my immediate family.  But after some emotional processing and deep thinking, I am ready to embrace the fact that in my relationships with others lies not only my security, but also my well-being and release from panic.  I’ll write more about this in another post, but here are my social goals for 2013.

I’m going to actively join and participate when possible two local groups working hard at resiliency: the Cowichan Green Community and Transition Cowichan.

I’m going to make sure that Skipper and I host at least one party for our immediate neighbours so that we can all meet and get to know each other better.  And we’d also like to host at least one other gathering for all of those friends we have made across the local area.  These are both things that we have talked about doing since we moved in, but it’s time to make them a reality.  The key for me is to see them as joyfully celebratory, community-building fun, rather than another task I don’t have time for!  If you’re reading this locally and would like to come, let me know!

To find the down-time to myself that I need in order to balance the extroverted job, I am also going to make a conscious effort this year to wean myself off of pointless internet surfing.  I’m feeling conflicted about my screen-time these days; truly, the internet is a source of amazing information, community, and entertainment.  We don’t have tv, don’t buy music, and love to learn.  However, I spend a LOT of time at a computer for work, and I’m wary of the creep that happens between work hours and off-hours when I’m online in my off time.  I also feel like the internet is another industrial grid-system that it isn’t good to be dependent on, which right now, it feels like we are.  Clearly, this is totally out of habit and not necessity; the Skipper and I are both old enough to remember life without it very clearly!

I’m really aware, too, though, that the internet-suck is preventing me from having time to work on other, creative projects, to procrastinate less, housekeep more, and to build community with the actual people around me, instead of the virtual people in other places–wonderful though you are and as much as I learn from you!  Interestingly, I’m actually feeling like I want to blog more–that doesn’t count as an internet time-waste, LOL.

And the last thing that I want to free up time for by decreasing internet time is meditation.  I don’t have a specific goal around this, although perhaps I should set one.  I just know that some regular meditiation time keeps me calm, keeps my fears for the future in perspective, keeps me focused on the joys of my life as it is now, and reminds me that there are mysteries of the universe that I do not understand that may be working in ways that I cannot see.  I know all of this keeps me much saner and healthier.

With all of this to look forward too, I’m ready to move into 2013 with excitement and anticipation.  Here’s to sunny skies ahead for all of us!


Cooking a Heritage Turkey

We’re having a slightly different sort of Christmas this year.

A few months back, close friends called and said, “we’re coming for Christmas!”  “Great!” We replied.  A few weeks ago, as we started to make preparations, we thought, “What the heck.  Let’s see if our favorite farmer down the road has any turkeys left.”

Adele and Michael Gelling raise heritage livestock and garlic.  What could be better?  We LOVE watching their beautiful Narragansett turkeys grow up; they’re such mellow, friendly, and stunning birds.  We’ve often come home from a visit scouring our yard for a spot we could tuck a few.  No luck so far.

This year, we were in luck; there were a couple of turkeys left, though the smallest she could do was 15lbs.  We thought we’d be 5 adults, and would be able to make a suitable dent in that much meat.

A week or two later, we got the text–our dear friends couldn’t get away and weren’t going to be able to make it down after all.  So sad.  And slightly daunting–what would we do with our big bird?

Last week, we got a text from another friend, who was travelling with his blended family of 6 across the island for Christmas.  Could they stop in on their travels for a quick visit?  “Great!”  We said.  “How about a turkey dinner?!”

So yesterday, December 23rd, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner.  We went all out: our potatoes and rutabagas from the garden, stuffing made with our potatoes, apples, onion and bacon.  Brussel sprouts, gravy, Skipper made a pumpkin and an apple pie (both from our garden), and of course, the bird.

First things first: It was the best turkey we’ve ever eaten.

Second things second: we were incredibly confused about how to cook it, based on all the contradictory information on the interwebs and other various sources.  So we took a deep breath, combined some of the better tips and instincts based on cooking our roosters over the last year, and dove in.  Because it turned out SO well, I thought I’d share, and because we likely cooked our turkey days before anyone else, I thought it might be helpful to get the recipe out now!

Roasting a Heritage Turkey

The big goal is to end up with crispy roasted skin, a cooked-though bird, and super-moist meat.  Not an easy balancing act.  The trick with non-supermarket poultry, according to my new bible, The River Cottage Meat Book, is to do a hot initial sear, and then a longer, low-temperature roast.

We started with a very fresh, never frozen turkey (15.6 lbs).  Obviously not everyone can do this, but I’m sure it made a difference!

Chefs roast a bird that is dry and at room temperature.  After our bird sat in the fridge for more than 24 hrs (which also makes a difference with a fresh bird), we took it out of the fridge, dried it off, and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so to warm up.

The next key thing is to add fat to the bird which helps to crisp the skin and to retain the moisture.  So the Skipper buttered the dry bird, and then added salt, pepper, and herbs.  We also quartered a couple of our apples and stuck them in the cavity (my father always used to do this with oranges, which is also delicious).   Butter inside and out.

Then we realized that our turkey wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan.  Luckily, because it wasn’t actually Christmas yet, the neighbours had something we made work.

The turkey then went into a preheated, 400 degree, hot oven for 20 minutes.  Then, to the hot pan, we added a half-cup or so of white wine, and on went the roasting pan lid, tightly.  We turned the oven down to 325.

Recipes had varied as to how long to roast a turkey, from 20-30 minutes per pound.  With 15 lbs, though, that’s a huge range!  There’s also some debate about what the final temperature of the turkey should be, with the USDA guidelines at 180, but many cooks saying this is WAY too hot, and a guaranteed way to get a dried-out (though safe to eat!!) roast.  Chefs argued for 160-165, especially if you were comfortable with the provenance of the bird, which we were.

We decided to go with 20 mins per pound, and aim for 165, and see what we ended up with.  That math would have given us 5 hours, and we were expecting our guests at 5pm.  So we put the bird in at 12pm, and then decided we’d check on things at 3pm or so, to see if the turkey needed basting, uncovering to crisp or brown, etc.

At three o’clock, we pulled the bird out and uncovered it.  It was stunning!  The skin was crispy and had pulled away from meat in places.  The meat looked juicy, and there was lots of yummy smelling juice at the bottom of the pan.  We stuck the thermometer into the thickest parts of the meat–it was off the charts!  The bird was way over 180.  Ummm, that meant it was done.  2 hours early.

We crossed our fingers that the high temperature didn’t mean a dry bird, texted our friends to see if they could come a little sooner, and left the bird covered in the pan to rest while we pulled together the side dishes.

An hour later, our friends were here, and we had 8 hungry people to do justice to the most succulent, moist, flavourful turkey any of us had ever tasted.  And today, as Skipper and I nibbled on leftovers, we can report that even after a day in the fridge, the meat is STILL MOIST.  Amazing.

So tips we’ve learned about cooking heritage turkey:

Free-range, heritage birds have less meat and more bone for their weight compared to their fattened counterparts.  This throws the cooking times off.  Be warned!

Next time, we will again do the hot initial sear, and we will again cover the bird for the rest of the cooking, after adding a little liquid to the pan.  But Skipper says next time he would lower the heat even more, down to 315 or so.  We’d still use 20 mins per pound as a general guideline, just in case (especially at a lower heat), but again, we’d plan to check the bird early, after 10-15 minutes per pound.  Our bird took 3.5 hours for 15.6 lbs.  But the point is that there is a lot more variation in the heritage, free-range birds, and you can’t just plug in a formula.

We did not brine our bird, and opinions on this for heritage birds varied.  But given that our bird was so fresh, and so potentially tasty, we were worried about over saturating the turkey with water and salt.  After all, in theory a good quality, traditional turkey shouldn’t need to be altered too much to add flavour where there might not be any…We have no regrets.  We think that keeping the bird covered while roasting with extra liquid took the place of brining, and was much simpler.

So there you go!  Hope that helps someone else have a very merry turkey-mas, and whether you’re having a turkey feast, or, as we’re doing tonight, a Ukrainian wheat-free vegan Christmas even dinner, have a wonderful holiday.  On to the garden goals of 2013!

Taking Stock and Stocking Up

It’s no coincidence that I’ve been AWOL between Labour Day weekend and the first week of December this year.  Can you say “School semester?!”  Sadly, this was one of those semesters that just didn’t leave me 2 hours free to put a post together.  I’ve considered dropping the blog altogether, but that doesn’t feel right either.  So my goal is to post once a month or so and see where that takes me.

The fact is, there’s been lots going on around here, and I want to share it.  It’s been a busy and productive fall, and all the reading and grappling with the transitions underway have had some transformative impacts on our lives.  There are also still many things that I remain unsettled and anxious about.  I continue to swing regularly between despair and acceptance about what’s happening in the world, and my homestead work calms me to some degree.  But I also recognize that the real work needs to happen at the community level, and I’m reflecting on how I want to participate in that broader picture.

In the meantime, I thought I should report a bit on what we accomplished this fall!  One of my goals after last summer’s chicken-ravaging of my winter garden was to do a better job of extending our garden’s production for as long as possible.  About halfway through the season, I also got serious about preserving and stocking up the pantry, even if that meant buying some local produce from off the property.  The results have been so heartening–and a giant leap forward!

The Well-Stocked Larder
The Well-Stocked Larder

This fall, we are looking at a pantry with

  • 48 pints of thick tomato sauce, plus some stewed tomatoes and salsa
  • almost 100 lbs of potatoes stored–enough to get us to spring, if I can keep them from sprouting!
  • umpteen jars of assorted pickles: cucumber, zucchini, beets
  • canned cherries and peaches, frozen berries, and umpteen jars of jam
  • a decent supply of onions, as well as a garden full of leeks, some garlic
  • a garden bed full of huge rutabagas and parsnips
  • a successful patch of cabbage and (hopefully!) brussel sprouts–enough cabbage til May
  • 40 lbs of winter squash
  • a few lbs of stored dry pinto and fava beans
  • a covered bed of salad greens that we should be able to eat from for another month or so
  • a solid patch of healthy chard also covered to pull from for another month or two
  • a decent bed of winter kale
  • a freezer full of corn, green beans, chicken (ours and some heritage roosters bartered with a friend)
  • eggs and…a half-side of pork raised by a farming colleague!

And…from a half-dozen espaliered and dwarf apple trees: 450 lbs of apples!!

The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes
The bulk of the apple harvest with the last of the fall tomatoes

These have been taken off to the local u-brew to make cider (we don’t yet have a press/grinder), frozen for deserts, and made into apple sauce.  We’re still working our way through the last of the processing; I’d also like to try drying some slices by the wood stove.

In other words, we’ve got enough of our home-produced food to keep us going for a number of months yet, supplemented by a few basic grocery staples: rice, oats, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, etc.   I have accepted that our homestead (for now!) will not produce grains and dairy.  But I’m so impressed that we’ve produced so much else, and very curious to see how long it lasts!

As the December break rolls around, I’m setting new garden goals and getting ready to order seeds.  I want to improve my carrot and beet production, and continue to clear brush and ornamentals to make room for more food.  I got an expanded strawberry patch and an asparagus bed set up last year, but I killed off most of the blueberry starts 😦 .   And I’m planning next year to make a concerted effort to save seeds.  We managed a few beans and sunflower seeds this year, but I want to start settling on my favourite varieties of my crops and starting to strategically and systematically save seeds from those where viable.  Right now we just save a few once the plants are done and the harvest over, but that isn’t actually selecting for the best traits!

Beyond the garden, we’re also starting to think more strategically about our overall homestead and its sustainability and resilience.  We continue to count our woodstove as one of our biggest blessings, and with its help, we’re trying to reduce our energy use even more.  The Skipper has decided that using the dishwasher–though a high efficiency model–can’t possibly be as energy-efficient as heating water on the woodstove to handwash dishes.  We’ve bought some cast-iron enameled pots to experiment with cooking on the woodstove.  In BC, we have a two-tiered billing system for our electricity, and the Skipper has set us the challenge of trying to get our consumption down to the first tier: about 22 kwhrs per day.  We bought a bigger freezer to accommodate the food storage, and with a new energy-star model, we got rid of an older extra fridge and the small freezer and are now using less energy with more space. Win!

Also on the priority list is some rainwater catchment.  We’re on a good well here, but resilience is about redundancy, and at the moment we are completely reliant on our well and it’s electric pump.  There are manual pumps available, and we might also look into one, but rainwater storage makes a lot more sense as low-hanging fruit.  I’ve been angling for this for months now, but the push came last night, when the Skipper said a colleague of his is stuck at the moment because his pump went, and it’s (of course) thousands of dollars and a huge hassle to have someone come with a machine to pull out the pump (!), repair or replace it and put it back in.  That’s the kind of personal emergency that Sharon Astyk reminds us about.  I don’t know how we would pay for that kind of problem at the moment, and of course, while all of that decision-making and work is in progress, you have no water!!  There’s a strong case for a back-up plan!

There’s lots more to share, but I’ll stop there for now.  Hope you are also looking forward to a winter with a full woodshed, a warm fire, and tasty food shared with good company.

The Emotional Process of Transition

Back in May, a colleague and I were talking about how we could revamp our courses to reflect our ecological and other global concerns.  I was reading like crazy, and was really taken by Carolyn Baker‘s approach–the need to mentor and guide people through the psychological and emotional shift that accompanies really dealing with the challenges to come.  It became my goal to design a course that would allow (mostly younger) students to face the realities of their potential futures, align their expectations, and get them thinking about how best to contribute to that future.  I recognized that this meant taking students on an emotional journey, and I’ve been working at structuring the course to do that in the months since.

Ironically, though, what I didn’t know was that I had only begun MY emotional journey with this transition!  Imagine thinking I could hold space for others to go through a process that I hadn’t been through myself! Hah!

As I’ve mentioned, I spent the larger part of the summer in despair and grief.  I have (I think!) grasped the scope and magnitude of what we’re facing.  I have recognized that there are no easy answers.  Climate change is running away from us very quickly, if we were ever in control.  Peak oil transitions are not being dealt with, and so are likely to be dramatic rather than gently mitigated.  The economy may stabilize, as it is now where I live, but even here the indications that we are in for radical transformations of our expectations and standards of living are many.  Everything looks very insecure, very tenuous, and very uncertain.  We are headed into unfamiliar territory, and I am scared.

My last post, about our financial situation, was written from that place of fear.  In the midst of all of the uncertainty, getting control of some aspects of our lives seemed imperative.  I spent weeks driving my husband crazy; every few HOURS I would state dramatically and with great doom:  “We HAVE to move.”  Followed by a few hours later, “We HAVE to stay.”  Followed a few hours later by, “Maybe we should sell everything and go live on a boat.  No wait–let’s buy an RV, park it on a small property and catch rainwater and compost EVERYTHING.  It’s our ONLY HOPE!”  He’s a patient man.

Now, many weeks back, John Michael Greer joined those who have suggested that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief might resonate with our stages of emotional transition, both at the individual and potentially at the community level too.  These stages have been added to and tweaked over the decades, but her essential stages were Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

When I read about these stages in this context, I thought, well, I don’t remember being in Denial, but I can see where I’ve been in Anger and in Depression.  I knew that I wasn’t yet at Acceptance!  But after writing out all the scenarios and worrying about our finances and seeing no clear way out, I suddenly had an epiphany: I was Bargaining!

You see, in all of my fear about all of the uncertainty, and in the midst of grieving for the suffering that I could see happening now and coming down the (Enbridge) pipe(line), I could see Collapse-a-coming.  What was my response?  To bargain obsessively over the details of my life to try to keep OUR lives from collapsing while the changes rolled in.

It was SO helpful to see that that’s what I was doing.  I took a deep breath, and here’s what I was able to see on the other side of my fear.

  • I cannot keep us from feeling the impact of the changes to come.  No matter how I fuss over the details, the whole point of the the collapse (and the reason for my fear) is that it is unpredictable and will affect every aspect of our lives.  We WILL adapt, one way or another, as we already are, trying to make the best decisions for ourselves at each crossroads.
  • There are few, if any, winners in the current system.  A part of me DOES want it to collapse, as the system itself is the problem.  In my estimation, from the research that I’ve been doing, there is nothing to save the system: it’s broke, and it will be the cause of its own demise.  So given that, why on earth would I want to hold on to the parts of our lives that are a part of that system?!  My bargaining was only to try and grasp some stability, hold onto the familiar, no matter how ugly.
  • It’s time–at an emotional level–to step into the changes, and stop fighting them.  I’m not suggesting we stop protesting politically or not try to change our communities to mitigate coming disasters.  But it’s also time to embrace the fact that things ARE changing, and, at one level, that’s what we need.

In my core beliefs, I believe that when I am experiencing great anxiety and turmoil, it’s because my mind hasn’t caught up with where the energy of the universe (or however you’d like to define it) is undeniably pulling me.  Right now, the one thing that’s clear is that the world is transforming.  So it’s time to let go of trying to hold on to anything; time to once again grapple with the Buddhist tenet that life is only impermanence, and that our attachment to the belief that there is anything else causes us great suffering.

Accepting that there is only change ahead, though, opens great emotional and mental space for me.  It distills what is truly important in life, and it’s not necessarily our home, our garden, our safety.  Millions today have been displaced by climate change, millions have left their homes, millions have died.  I may yet be one of those millions, and that will have to be ok.  That reality brings me back to my spiritual beliefs, and those are comforting.

Understanding that I am not special in the changes to come brings me the great peace of solidarity and compassion.  When all of society and culture is stripped away, we are simply left with each other.  And that’s often a richly meaningful place to be.  After all, I teach in my literature courses that one reason to read fiction and poetry from other times and places is that it demonstrates so vividly, so reassuringly, that others have passed through the great mysteries of life before us.  There is community and human connection to be had across history, as well as potential guidance.  I’ll be working on a new course: Literature for Transition.

The last space that is opening up for me as I stop holding on to my current life circumstances is the opportunity for vision.  There are myriad conversations going on right now about Adaptation.  Those are incredibly important, and I’ll be having them myself.  But Adaptation is the logical next step that is consistent with our current thinking, our current paradigms.  But those of us who have long dreamed of a different way of being in the world have been imagining a life outside of those paradigms entirely.  I’ve often dismissed my own such visions as lovely, but unrealistic and impractical;  or possible, but so far down the road as to be not even worth pursuing.

But here’s the thing.  Any vision of life and community that will replace what we have now can ONLY seem crazy, because it’s outside of all of the systems that keep us where we are.  But the systems that keep us where we are are collapsing and will not hold.  So we NEED visions of life that don’t relate to those old paradigms at all.  The realization of this paradox is liberating–it’s time to stop worrying whether “people” will think I’m a little odd, because anything that will seem “normal” is by definition unsustainable and doomed! 🙂

So where am I going?  Not somewhere too crazy, I don’t think.  Not somewhere totally detached from our human history.  Just back to understandings of life systems that have proven to be possible to sustain in an ecological system for millenia at a time.  And nowhere too specific as yet.  Somewhere deep in our human indigenous roots all over the world, where all of the earth is alive, where we are a part of the ever shape-shifting manifestations of Life.  Where Life speaks to us through the plants, through the animals, through the creation stories and Trickster tales of our archetypal mythologies.  Into old stories about mystery, that honour and uphold grief and despair as appropriate and desperately important emotions that take us into the deep self and spiritual knowledge of our interdependence.  And that lead to visions and guidance from places that we cannot see but know in our deepest levels of consciousness to be true.

I’m going off to talk to the trees.

(Note–I’m not actually GOING anywhere.  Don’t worry! 🙂 )


In case anyone is interested, here are some of the readings I’m working my way through these days, and which are offering me lots to contemplate:

The Permaculture Handbook  This is a brilliant, practical guide to how to set up our lives in ways that will build resilience and be ecologically regenerative.  I’m a ways from a review, but I have found it deeply heartening so far.

Carolyn Baker’s work–I’ve been looking forward to diving into these for a couple of months now

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul  A book about developing beyond our societies pathological adolescence into the wisdom of elderhood; a process that Plotkin argues can only be accomplished through relationship with Nature

David Abrahms, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry and others working in the Deep Ecology movement

Sharon Astyk, Making Home is now out, hurray! (About learning to Adapt in Place)

“Waking Up Syndrome” Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell.  A quick article with lots of resources by two therapists about the emotional stages that we cycle through as we grapple with our understanding of the changing world.

Post-Peak Living: Our Homestead Economics

As I read and pay attention to both the predictions about what post-peak like might look like over the coming decades and to what’s happening already, the one message that stands out is that it is time to get used to being poorer.

Under the pressures of extreme weather events and disruptions to normal weather patterns, increasing oil prices, and a no-growth/all-debt global economic system, two things seem guaranteed:  everything will cost more, and our wages will not keep pace with that inflation.

The truth is, this has been the case for a long time.  I’ve been working in public service for more than a decade, and I don’t remember the last time a normal, cost-of-living raise was negotiated in a collective agreement I’ve been a part of.  Purchasing power in our neck of the woods has been declining since the 1970s, despite the availability of more cheap stuff.  After all, perhaps the biggest change in purchasing power since the 1970s, the aspect that has kept our western economies afloat for all this time, is really the massive increase in credit available.  Remember how in the 1970s you needed 25% down to buy a house?  And there was no such thing as credit cards?

So the value of our income is going down.  Prices on everything are going up.  And we’re likely to continue in a global economy that is debt-ridden and has run out of ways to grow its way out of recession, which means public–government–spending will also continue to be scaled back, along with our support services.  It’s time to start embracing poverty.

So I’ve been considering the question as I assess the resilience of our lives: How do I want to be poor?  Poverty is usually associated with people who have few choices and live on the desperate edges of survival, and no doubt this will describe more and more of us as the years go by.  But as someone who spent MANY years as a university student working part-time, I know that poverty can also mean living simply but joyfully on not very much money.  At this moment, our household has options, and my goal is to use this time of relative luxury to set up systems that will allow us to live on a much smaller relative income with dignity and little sense of deprivation or despair.

In 15 years, the Skipper will be ready to retire–at least that’s the goal.  At that point, if the economy allows, I could still work at high-ish wages for another decade.  But during that transition, I would like to be as little dependent on working incomes as possible.  And if one or both of us loses a job or we have our incomes go down (or hyperinflation kicks in), it would be nice to be able to continue a reasonable life without ending up on the street.  So we want to start making the wider economy redundant to us, before it makes us redundant to it!

Taking a hard look at our home economics in this light, though, is sobering.  We have been on the “simple living” bandwagon for many years.  The old rhetorics about getting rich by cutting out lattes and investing in mutual funds definitely don’t apply to us!  We don’t “go shopping”, we brown bag it everyday, and we value quality over quantity.  No keeping up with the Joneses here!

But our situation is by no means secure.  We have some debt, and we have used credit to do some of our home and garden infrastructure improvements.  We have a mortgage on a 30 year amortization that I don’t want to take 30 years to pay off; the sooner we OWN land, the better.  I have a small student loan that I previously put in the category of “good” debt, but now don’t see that way.

If the essentials of life are food, shelter, and water (not necessarily in that order!), right now shelter is costing us a LOT.  The mortgage, property taxes, home maintenance, required insurance, and the electricity that runs our basic water and septic functions add up to the biggest chunk of our budget.  Other debt payments are another big chunk, if we include a vehicle, student loans, and credit cards (because we’re paying them aggressively).  We live at the halfway point between 2 small cities: Skipper commutes south, I commute north.  Commuting is environmentally toxic, but also expensive: gas, maintenance, insurance, and a vehicle payment also take a big bite out of our incomes.

Food is complicated.  On the one hand, eating out of the garden is WAY cheaper than buying all those fruits and vegetables (especially organically) at the supermarket.  The garden does save us some money, and I will continue to push toward growing all of our vegetables and most of our fruit for the year.  I do spend money, though, on seeds, organic bulk fertilizer ingredients, and in the last 2 years, building more raised beds.  We provide our own eggs and some chicken and crab/fish, but there are background costs to these as well–feed costs for instance are dramatically on the rise, and that’s before this year’s drought affects them.

There are still all kinds of food items that we will continue to need to buy: grains and dairy seem the most obvious.  I’ll definitely be doing some research about how to mitigate these costs.  We’re in the middle of the year’s provisioning, and I’ll be tracking the math more carefully than usual, and will share what I find.

Here’s the puzzle for us in a nutshell.  We’re getting by, and if all things were going to stay the same for the next 20-30 years, there would be no issue.  We’ve been playing by the popular culture’s economic rules, and by the normal account of things, we’re doing fine.  But if I look a little deeper, our security is more tenous.  We also have projects that we want to undertake to improve our resiliency–a new roof, hardwood flooring, wood storage, etc etc.  At the moment I’m not sure where the money for these things will come from.

My goal is to massively decrease our need for incomes over the next 15 years.  But given the major expenses that we have right now, we have to think hard about how to do that.

Here are the options I’m considering:

Plan A: We will be spending some time over the next few months paying close attention to our spending, to see just how we might be able to cut back on whatever luxuries we have.  There’s not a lot of fat to trim, but I’m sure there is some.  The sad part is, though, that some of those luxuries are ways in which we support important local economies.  For instance, instead of making our own bread, which would be cheaper, we buy it from our extraordinary local bakery.  Although we’ve made our bread often over the years, the bakery we support is investing in local grain production, which benefits our whole region.  So part of this exercise will be thinking through the security of our purchases.  The usual frugal rule of finding the “cheapest” option is a false frugality, because it *increases* dependence on the tenuous global supply chain.

Plan B: Depending on how much we’re able to refine our current spending habits, we may have to look at more radical changes to our lifestyle to free up the cash to pay off the debts, own land, and have a system set up on our land to support a less cash-dependent lifestyle down the road.  Here’s where things get tricky.

We can try to decrease our mortgage.  The real estate trade-offs that affect price are the condition of the house, the size of the house, the size of the property, and the location.  To decrease our mortgage substantially, I’m willing to decrease the size of the house and property, but those two have to remain practical for reasonable food production, processing and storage.  Changing location may be an option, but moving closer to town, where prices are cheaper, also means higher property taxes and more rules–chickens aren’t yet permitted in town, for instance.  Skipper is a carpenter, and in theory fixing up a cheaper house is an option.  But we’d have to make sure that the costs of renovating and retrofitting don’t outweigh the savings in the mortgage.

I’ve considered even more radical options: selling the house, paying off the debts, saving the rest and moving on to a boat or into a trailer for a few years to build up some cash reserves before re-entering the housing market.  But these mean that we lose our capacity for food production, at least in the short term.

Another option is to try to cut down the cost of our commutes.  We’re making some choices about this already; we’ve decided not to replace my fuel-efficent beater, which we think will still keep going for another few years with some money put into maintenance.  It also looks like down the road I might have an opportunity to work closer to home (or more from home), and I’ll focus on that in my project decisions.  If we’re looking at the 15 year mark, and Skipper retiring, then that also takes care of a commute.  However, depending on where gas prices go, we could also consider making a more radical decision to move closer to one job and have the other person find a job in that community.  We both have very good reasons to hold on to the jobs we have, though!

Moving has the potential to make our lives more financially secure, and may prove to be the best option as time goes on.  But it has some big downsides too.  We’re in a house now that needs little retro-fitting.  We’ve replaced almost all of the appliances and toilets with efficient, low-water ones.  We have done a lot of work to the garden to get it producing well, and there’s lots more we could do.  And we’re in a community that has a lot to offer, including the kind of barter and exchange that is so necessary to replace the dependence on outsourcing-for-money.

Plan C:  Plan C is to continue as we are, doing our best, and using short-term credit as necessary.  Then, if things really do get difficult, we consider renting out a room, taking on extra work, etc to make up the difference.  This goes against my pro-active nature and my gut response to the stories on the news every day, but it is a totally valid option which many will pursue out of necessity.

Those are some of the tough decisions that post-peak life has us considering.  How about you?